Babies learn about the world through their senses, and their biggest sensory organ is their skin. Beginning with childbirth, a baby's first experiences are through his skin—feeling the uterus squeezing him out into the world, sensing the cold air on his skin, being rubbed or gently slapped on the bottom to start his first breath, and being brought to suckle at his mother''s breast.
Just as baby animals need to be licked and stroked for healthy development, human babies also need to be touched. And parents are naturally drawn to touch their babies—to stroke their skin, play with their fingers and toes, kiss the top of their head, blow raspberries on their belly, and cuddle them to their body.
Infant massage is simply an extension of what you naturally do. It consists of specific techniques for touching and stroking your baby. For centuries, infant massage has been a traditional practice in Asian, African and Latin American cultures, and it has recently gained widespread popularity around the world.
The benefits of infant massage
Over the past two decades, research has demonstrated that infant massage has many benefits for babies and parents. Experts agree that nurturing, physical contact helps promote your baby''s physical and emotional development. It also builds a strong bond between you and your baby, and contributes to your confidence and well-being as a parent.
Many studies have found that infant massage is particularly beneficial for babies at risk for physical and developmental problems. Hospitalized premature babies who receive regular infant massage are found to be more alert and active, and show improved circulation, breathing, growth, and development. Benefits for the babies are found to be similar whether a trained professional or the parent performs the massage. Another study of mothers with post-partum depression found that practicing regular infant massage improved the mothers' ability to play with and soothe their baby, and the babies became less fussy, more responsive and developed better sleep patterns.
Advocates of infant massage believe that it can benefit all babies and parents. Most parents find it can take a while to get "in sync" with their new baby. During your baby's awake periods each day, you begin to observe her calm times and fussy times. You begin to learn when and how to engage and stimulate your baby, and when and how to calm her when she is fussy. Over time, you will learn how to feed your baby, touch your baby, talk and sing to your baby, and use your facial expressions to engage your baby in a graceful dance—reading your baby's cues, responding to her, reading your baby's reply, and responding again. Giving your baby a regular massage can help you learn your baby's responses to your touch, and help your baby learn to experience input and respond in a relaxed way. Your gentle touching, combined with your reassuring smile and voice helps your baby learn to trust you, relax, and feel comfortable with his body.
Infant massage is a particularly good way for fathers to connect with their baby and with their own gentle, nurturing side. Many fathers lament that mothers and babies have a unique physical attachment developed through pregnancy and breastfeeding, which a father could never achieve. But infant massage provides the opportunity for fathers to develop an intimate, physical connection and bond with their baby.
Infant massage techniques
There are many different techniques for infant massage. What is common among the massage techniques is that they gently stimulate the baby's skin and the underlying muscles and organs, thereby stimulating the baby's circulation, digestion and nerve growth.
Ask your baby's doctor about whether your baby might benefit from infant massage. Generally, you can start massaging your newborn as long as her condition is stable, being careful to avoid sensitive areas such as the umbilical cord before it has fallen off.
You can massage your baby during the daytime or evening when she is alert and quiet. This could be after a feeding, before or after a nap, after a bath, or before bedtime. The aim is to massage your baby's entire body, one part at a time. Generally the massage begins with the baby's feet and progresses up the baby's body toward the baby's head, which can be more sensitive.
Many parents find that their newborns are more sensitive to their skin being exposed and their bodies being handled, and they tolerate only gentle and brief sessions. But over the next 6 months, most babies increase their comfort with massages and can enjoy longer sessions. Older infants and toddlers may squirm and crawl away, but you can still find quiet times when your children can continue to enjoy massages.
Follow these basic steps for infant massage:
1) Begin with baby's feet. Using your thumb and index finger, stroke from toe to heel along the sole of the foot and toe to ankle on the top of the foot.
2) Now, hold baby's leg gently at the ankle with one hand and using a slow, gentle circular motion, stroke from baby's ankle to hip with alternating hands.
3) Move to baby's hands. Open baby's hand with your thumb and gently stroke the palm and top of the hand. Gently roll each of baby's fingers between your index finger and thumb.
4) Hold baby's wrist with one hand and stroke from the wrist to the shoulder. Then, massage around each shoulder with gentle, small, circular motions.
5) Using a circular motion and light touch, stroke baby's tummy in a clockwise direction below the rib cage. Avoid baby's naval if the cord is still attached.
6) Then, place both hands on the center of baby's chest. Gently stroke out to the sides, bring your hands down and then back up to the center of the baby's chest.
7) Cradle baby's head with you hands. Using both thumbs, gently stroke baby's head in a circular motion, moving around crown and ears. Avoid baby's soft spots.
8) Place baby on tummy. Start with both hands together on baby's back. Slowly stroke baby from the shoulders to the buttocks and back to the shoulders.
To find out more or to take a class in infant massage, ask your local pediatrician, parent resource center, or children's hospital for a referral to a certified infant massage instructor; or visit the International Association of Infant Massage at www.iaim-us.com.